youhere are certain constants in our lives: north stars by which we can measure and track the changes that occur around them as time passes. For most of the past decade, the constant fulcrum around which the NBA has revolved has been the special ongoing rivalry between first-ballot future Hall of Famers LeBron James and Stephen Curry.
Some basketball fans grew up in a time when they saw Magic Johnson and Larry Bird go head to head year after year, and other fans grew up during the period of time when extraordinary players like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, they dominated the league and did not have a single and definitive rival to speak of. Personally, basketball didn’t enter my life in any significant way until early adulthood, so basically for as long as I’ve been paying attention, a LeBron and Steph-centric NBA has represented the permanent model. Any claimant to the throne inevitably had to go through one or the other to get to the top of the mountain, and for the four consecutive years that Steph’s Warriors and LeBron’s Cavaliers met in the NBA Finals (from 2015 to 2018 ), no one did it successfully.
Because of this, it’s been hard to imagine a world in which the battle between James and Curry isn’t at least bubbling below the surface, if not dominating the headlines. So when the stars finally aligned for the two court supernovas to meet in the postseason once again for the first time in five years, it felt, in a way, like all was right with the world.
But as their Western Conference semifinal series has unfolded over the past week and a half, one thing became clear that caused both palpable nostalgia and a bit of discomfort: This was the beginning of the end of this era. The post-LeBron James/Stephen Curry NBA is looming on the horizon, and their most recent battle only served as evidence that while both their careers are far from over, their epic rivalry is much closer to its end than it is. its beginning.
In an almost poetic inversion, James and Curry found themselves in opposite positions during this most recent playoff clash of when you last saw each other in 2018. Back then, Curry benefited from a No. 2 option that was arguably No. 1 (eventual NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant); these days, LeBron shares the load with world champion Anthony Davis with a fresh supporting cast and surprisingly deep to keep them afloat. Unlike previous years, Curry was made to carry the Warriors single-handedly. through a tumultuous seasonjust like James did that year with a short-played Cavaliers team.
Also vice versa: the result. James added 30 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in a close Game 6 victory on Friday that eliminated the defending champions and elevated the Lakers to the final four in the NBA, a remarkable result for a team left for dead just a few months ago.
James was arguably at his peak when he last faced Curry in the postseason. And while he was in charge during Friday night’s decisive game, no one would argue that he’s on the downside of his glittering career. Even putting his age aside (he’ll be 39 later this year), there’s no need to look any further than the injuries that have dogged him for the past few seasons as evidence that a seemingly invulnerable body is finally starting to show signs of healing. susceptibility to the laws of physics. For much of this series, in fact, it was Davis and other members of the Lakers support players who helped the team get over the line when the going got tough. Curry, on the other hand, had one of his most dominant seasons this year, and it could be reasonably argued that, fresh out a fourth NBA championship and his first NBA Finals MVP, the height of his skills is happening at this very moment.
The series that played out in Los Angeles and San Francisco didn’t quite paint that picture, as an overbearing Davis made Curry’s life defensive hell, and the wear and tear of the Warriors’ hard-fought seven-game war with an energetic Sacramento Kings team. On the first lap he seemed to ride for the end of the second. But it’s interesting that while the legacies of James and Curry seem indelibly linked to each other on an almost cosmic level, the two were famous born at the same hospital in Akron, Ohio – the arcs of their trajectories were never exactly in sync: like two sine waves on a graph, intersecting at moments but never exactly following each other’s paths. If age is any indication, it’s quite possible that we may, in fact, soon be approaching a version of the NBA that has a Steph Curry and not a LeBron James; something literally unprecedented.
The intuitive knowledge of that fact made this particular battle feel exceptionally sentimental, and as I watched, I was caught in a bit of disbelief as I reflected: Will I ever see this again? The answer is not clear. But it was profoundly apparent just by looking at the long, passionate embrace between the two superstars at the end of the game on Friday night, not only how much respect they shared for each other, but that even they knew how special this moment was – to them and to each other. history books
Curry himself put it best when asked by ESPN’s Malika Andrews to sum up the experience after the series’ conclusion: “It’s just one battle at a time. And I know there are a lot of different narratives within each of the series that we’ve had, and different teams, teammates and all of the above. But it’s just great basketball. Great competition. Understanding who LeBron is and who he’s been throughout his career, the accolades, the championships he’s won, the records he’s held: he’s an incredible basketball player. He brings out the best in you, and you know you have to do your best if you’re going to try to beat him. I think he feels the other way around. You love those experiences.
“Someone has to win. It’s part of the nature of what we’re dealing with. But there’s a lot of respect and, again, appreciation for the battles and the experiences and the exchanges, because it’s basketball at the highest level, and that’s all you can ask for.”
All you can ask for, in fact.